Dean O'Brien's Blog

Saint Iversky Monastery – No Rest – Not Even For The Dead

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Shortly after arriving in Donetsk I headed to the Saint Iversky Monastery, 500 metres from the contact line.  It’s a place that I’d read about and seen images of many times.  What greets you is a church which is riddled with shrapnel and shell damage.  It’s surreal, like a prop from a movie.  Only this is real.  And yes, it still fully functions as a place of worship.

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Although this is undergoing repairs, throughout the shelling, people still attended church services here.  Even when it barely had a roof.   Only recently a shell landed on the path as you approach the steps.  People told me that this is proof that civilians are being deliberately targeted.

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Surrounding the monastery is one of the 22 cemeteries which are now classed as ‘off limits’ due to it being too dangerous.  These are in a ‘hot zone’.  As I wander amongst the broken graves, the eeery silence is shattered with the cracking sound of gunfire only a short distance away.  Short bursts, then silence again.  It’s a stark reminder of exactly where you are. 

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I’m continually warned not to walk on any grassy areas due to there being unexplode devices and to keep my head down in open areas.  There are fragments of shells everywhere.  Gravestones are shattered and pieces of broken marble are strewn amongst the overgrown grass.

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In the background sits what remains of the legendary Donetsk Airport.  The scene of some of this conflicts most aggressive battles.  Many bodies still remain buried deep beneath the rubble, but it’s too dangerous to even attempt to retrieve them as this is still a ‘hot spot’ and there are still  unexploded devices amongst the ruins.     

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It’s not long before I meet a local man who came to lay flowers.  He stands near a spot where a shell landed in the cemetery recently.  He explained how the Ukrainian Army still shell this area, even though only civilians come here to grieve for their dead and to lay flowers.  He told me ‘we can never be one again with those fascists from Kiev, too much blood has been spilt and too may lives lost’.

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Long term, I plan to interview more of those who risk their lives to come to the cemetery.

 

   

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Written by Dean O'Brien

May 30, 2019 at 7:22 pm

Donetsk People’s Republic – First Impressions

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I’m back.  Back from Donbass in eastern Ukraine where war continues into its 5th year.  It was an amazing experience.  Tough, both physically and emotionally but well worth it.

Having been travelling to Ukraine (Kiev-government controlled side) for almost 10 years, it was only natural for me to want to see things from the non-government (pro-Russian) side of things.  This is now a self declared new republic – The Donetsk People’s Republic.

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First impressions were not what I expected.  I’d previously seen images of Donetsk portraying empty shops and people queueing for bread like in Soviet times.  When I arrived believe me when I tell you that it was nothing like this. Shops, pubs, restaurants are all open.  The buses and taxis operate as normal and the streets are immaculate with no litter. 

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And of course, when the conflict started & a new republic developed, chains such as McDonald’s disappeared. However, necessity is the mother of invention. They now have ‘Don Mac’, which I tried.  It’s equally as good, if not better.

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Sure, there is a curfew in place (11pm to 5am) and there are no electronic forms of payment (strictly cash) but it’s no big deal.  But just like in any other city, people sit outside coffee shops gazing into smartphones whilst teenagers skateboard down the street.  It’s hard to believe there is a war happening here. 

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The vast majority of western media organisations haven’t been allowed to come here for a while now, so to be invited was an opportunity too good to miss.  From the front line positions of eastern Ukraine, to the streets of Donetsk, I documented as much as I could.  Talking to both soldiers and civilians. 

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I stayed in Kievsky district and as you might expect, I could hear shelling at night.  Not every night, but when it did hapen you knew about it.     

Over the next few weeks I’ll be publishing more blog posts with images so please subscribe via email so that you can be notified.

 

 

Written by Dean O'Brien

May 22, 2019 at 7:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Back to the east of Ukraine – Accreditation approved (finally)

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As plans are coming together for me to return to Ukraine, the huge influx of fake news coming from there is a major factor making me want to return.  Many in the West don’t know what to believe, and in all honesty, why should they?  Western media gave up reporting from the east of the country a long time ago, especially from the pro-Russian (non-government side). 

It seems that they have some kind of hidden political agenda.  But it’s essential that this conflict is covered from both sides of the fence.  It seems bizarre that they have taken the decision to stop reporting from here.  This is a war taking place in Europe, which since 2014 has claimed around 13,000 lives, 3,300 civilian deaths and resulted in 30,000 wounded.

When on the odd occasion news is reported, it’s from the Kiev (pro-government ) side.  It seems that the majority of western journalists regurgitate news they they’ve heard from ‘a contact’ in the east but it’s nothing that they can ‘hand on heart’ confirm to be true for themselves.  And yet, it still manages to get published and distributed online.  The reality is that many of these reports are emailed across from the safety of a hotel room in Kiev, some 500 miles from where the actual trouble is taking place.  

And as you might expect, those of us who do opt to travel there certainly don’t do it for the money.  We each have our own reasons for going.  I want to talk to those people living close to the contact line, those who chose not to flee the war.  And more importantly, I want to try and tell their story.  Although trying to do this is not so simple.  In Ukraine, many seem to struggle with the understanding that you want, and more importantly need, to cover this conflict from ‘both sides’ to give it balance.  They see the situation as very black and white,  with me being told on numerous occasions ‘you are either with us or with them’.  Almost as though you need to choose a side.       

I take my hat off to those who have sacrificed themselves in the pursuit of truth.  Photographer Andy Rocchelli was killed on May 24th 2014 near Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine along with Andrey Mironov, a Russian journalist who accompanied him.  I remember reading an article about the death of Rochelli.  They said something along the lines of how this is ‘a new era in journalism for the self-assigned, freelance photojournalists now roaming the world in dangerous zones, driven by idealism’.

In the past it’s been a struggle working in the east of Ukraine, but at least this time I’ll be returning with full civilian and military accreditation.  Something I’ve found near impossible to gain in the past.

Written by Dean O'Brien

March 24, 2019 at 5:46 pm

Kramatorsk – New Beginnings

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Last week I returned to Kramatorsk where I was invited to be a guest speaker at a local school.  This was to be my second talk here, and it was great to be asked to return.

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I spoke about my ongoing projects in Ukraine, which of late, are more focussed in the east of the country.  As the war in the east of Ukraine seems to sit on a back burner with western media, I think it’s vital that the people here be heard.  It’s also important that people in the west know what’ it’s like to live here on a day to day basis.

As expected the children were a little bit shy to talk at first, which was only to be expected.  I discussed what initially brought me to Ukraine, my past projects here and showed a photo film ‘Katya’s Story’  which I made a few years ago whilst studying for my photography degree at Coventry University.

This was a great ice breaker which led us into a Q & A session. One of the questions I was asked was ‘What do people in your country think when they see what’s happening here on the news?’   I could only be honest and reply ‘It’s not on the news anymore, most people in the UK think the war in Ukraine finished long ago’.

They genuinely seem shocked, but I went on to explain that it only reinforced the reasons why I travelled here in the first place.  I also mentioned that due to this media blackout, it’s important now, more than ever, that freelancers such as myself be allowed to come and document what’s happening here.

I then asked what their hopes were for the future and how may people in the room wanted to remain in Ukraine once they have left school.  The majority replied that they wanted to leave.  This was not solely down to the war, but more down to the fact that they see Ukraine as a country which does not give them many opportunities.

Finally I announced that I would like to distribute a number of disposable cameras to the pupils at the school to start a small project with them.  The idea being that they can photograph ‘their’ everyday lives.  I want them to show us what they see on a daily basis.

They we’re a little concerned initially as they do not own what they described as ‘real cameras’.  I told them not to worry and reassured them that some of the greatest images out there were made using basic photographic tools.  These cameras will be ideal and the quality of the images is not important at this stage.

I see this project as a kind of ‘new beginnings’ for the pupils here.  It can’t be easy living so close to a conflict zone, and this project may help them to focus on something more positive.  I’ll get the images developed here in the UK and then return to Kramatorsk to discuss these with the pupils and take the project forward from there.

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Written by Dean O'Brien

October 3, 2018 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Ukraine

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Odessa Massacre – Trade Unions House Fire Anniversary – May 2nd 2018

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On May 2nd 2014 Odessa saw one the worst disasters in it’s history.  A total of 48 people were killed on this day.  6 people in the street and a further 42 died in a fire at Trade Unions House.  What exactly happened on that day depends a lot on who you talk to.

Graffiti around Trade Unions House tells it’s own story

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The day before the anniversary I’d visited Trade Unions House and watched gradually how the flowers and icons has started build up.  I remained at a distance and didn’t want to intrude.

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The following day, on the actual anniversary of the fire, barriers had been set up around Trade Unions House to search and monitor those who were attending.  It was pretty pointless in all honesty as it seemed more focussed on controlling those who would be reporting from, or recording footage from the event.

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In the morning, all seemed peaceful and calm.  The atmosphere was solemn as you’d expect but towards the afternoon that changed.  The heavy Police presence had (somehow??) allowed right wing extremists to enter through the barriers to Trade Unions House, to provoke and attempt to intimidate those who had come to lay flowers and show their respects.

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I want to clarify one thing now.  There were no ‘pro-Russian’ supporters here, just relatives of the dead.  Mostly mothers and grandmothers who had arrived bringing flowers and religious icons.

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I personally witnessed grandmothers and mothers of those who died in the fire being pushed, shoved and verbally abused by the provocateurs.  They were a mixture of Ukrainian far-right nationalists, football hooligans (ultras) and titushki (paid provocateurs).

Below (one of the main far right provocateurs), speaks to local media.

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Later the Police, along with Ukrainian media were seen to be laughing and joking with the extremists and provocateurs.  I’ve been travelling to Ukraine for almost ten years now, so this comes as no surprise to me.  In Odessa, here too the Police have adopted the new ‘American cop’ look (with new uniforms and vehicles), but little else has changed.  The same goods just packaged differently.

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Whilst wandering around I managed to have a quick chat with Natasha.  She tells me ‘The fascists have turned up. They have no respect for the living nor the dead’

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Ukraine has a long way to go if it believes that they are ready to integrate with the rest of Europe by joining the EU.  It’ll be in a few years’ someone told me.  I think that’s a little optimistic.  Corruption still runs deep.  Too deep, as today clearly showed.    

Written by Dean O'Brien

June 2, 2018 at 8:35 pm

More to come..

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I’m back from Ukraine, and after travelling from one side of the country to the other, covering numerous events, I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

I travelled to Kiev initially then onto Odessa to cover the 4th anniversary of the Trade Unions House fire where 42 people died.  After that I headed East to Slavyansk then onto Kramatorsk (where I did a talk about my work), and finally Mariupol to cover Victory Day.

As is always the case,  there’s never enough time to complete all what I intend to do whilst I’m there.  Each of these places deserves it’s own blog post here and I’ll get round to it when I can.

I want to thank you all for continuing to follow my work.  Nothing much gets reported in the media these days about what’s happening in Ukraine, especially in the East.  I’m part of a small number of photographer’s working out here, each doing our own thing.

Anyway, I seem to be posting more stuff up on Instagram these days, especially whilst I’m in Ukraine, so feel free to follow me here.  I’m also fairly active on Twitter, so again, feel free to follow me here.

 

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Written by Dean O'Brien

May 27, 2018 at 9:18 pm

Kramatorsk – Поехали!

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After leaving Sloviansk I then headed to Kramatorsk.  It’s only a short (and cheap) taxi ride.  It’s here that I meet Andrei.  Originally from Donetsk, Andrei now lives in Kramatorsk, and like many, has to make the occasional trip across into the non government controlled area to visit family etc..  Having to cross through both government (Ukrainian) and non -government (pro-Russian) controlled checkpoints, this is a trip that can take anything from 3 hours up to as much as 24, depending on the circumstances.  Although it has taken days on some occasions.

He offers to show me around  the city and introduces me to many local people living in the area.  As per, I head to where Lenin once stood.  Now stands a naked plinth painted in yellow and blue.  It looks freshly painted.  A passer by tells me this is because it’s regularly vandalised with swastikas, ss and nazi slogans (as the images below show).  Although under Ukrainian control, Kramatorsk (like Sloviansk) still carries a large amount of support for non -government (pro-Russian) forces.

I spend a lot of time here wandering around on my own during the day.  I took the steps of not carrying my SLR camera and opting to use my iPhone instead.  I wasn’t paranoid but there was a strange tension in the air here and I didn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to myself.  Soviet mosaics still remain as do may Soviet street names.

Nightlife is pretty quiet here as one might expect.  There’s no curfew but the streets start to empty as darkness draws in.  Andrei introduces me to many of his family and friends.  We drink beer, eat pizza and talk about work, hobbies and what the future holds.  As with Sloviansk, life goes on.  I plan to document life here in a lot more detail when I return later this year.

 

 

Written by Dean O'Brien

February 2, 2018 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Ukraine